These days, Method acting gets a pretty bad rap. It’s mostly defined in the public’s imagination by actorly excesses like Daniel Day-Lewis demanding to be addressed as Mr. President on the set of Lincoln and Jared Leto terrorizing his Suicide Squad castmates with disgusting Joker-inspired pranks. As Butler himself notes late in this lengthy tome, the general perception of Method acting these days is perfectly described by Dustin Hoffman’s anecdote from the set of Marathon Man, where, having stayed awake multiple days in a row in order to portray his character’s reality, Sir Lawrence Olivier asked him if he had ever considered acting.
The task Isaac Butler sets for himself is to define Method acting and delineate its roots and its development. He does very well at setting down the history of the idea, but perhaps falls short of defining just what Method acting consists of. It’s hard to judge him too harshly on that score, however. As his book shows conclusively, nearly all of the major names we associate with the term disagree on the parameters of Method acting.
The concept comes from Russia in the late 19th century. out of the Moscow Art Theatre and its legendary co-founder, Konstanin Sergeiovich, better known by his stage name, Stanislavski. The general concept was that actors, rather than just declaiming the lines in service to the author’s text, could be artists themselves and use their art to elevate the material through the pursuit of truth. Stanislavski centered the notion of “perezhivanie,” translated as “lived experience.” Actors should be feeling what their character was feeling in the moment.
Stanislavski’s ideas had an immediate impact, including perhaps saving the career of Anton Chekhov, whose play The Seagull was revitalized by this new style of acting. But portentously, the ideas were controversial and hard to define from the start. Stanislavski and his co-founder had a massive falling out and barely talked for decades, and the public understanding of his ideas suffered from both Stanislavski’s poor abilities as a writer and his need to censor his ideas to satisfy the Soviet government.
The Method made it’s way to the United States in the Depression Era Group theater, where it was taught by Stanislavski disciples to American playwrights, directors, actors and acting coaches. It arrived simultaneously with the movement to really create a distinct American theater, which had not really existed before.
Eventually, the Method in America came to be defined by personalities like Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Rod Steiger, James Dean, and Marlon Brando. Tellingly, these figures and others all disagreed about what it meant to be a Method actor. The public’s confusion only deepened, as critics and journalists often labeled actors as Method who had never studied the system or credited Strasberg for the success of actors who strenuously resisted his teaching.
Butler tracks the boom and bust cycles of the Method. Students at Strasberg’s Actors Studio dominated the 1950s in theater, movies, and the nascent form of television. Performances like Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and Rod Steiger’s in the TV version of Marty put the Method on the map. After a retreat in the 60s, Method bounced back big in the New Hollywood thanks to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro, before being largely killed off by the big blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars.
In a sense, Butler’s book is less a history of Method acting itself than it is a history of the reaction to the idea of Method acting. Much of the book is taken up with the bitter, personal disputes between both the leading figures of the movement and between them and their critics. All the major theatre groups instituting the Method were riven by dissension. Lee Strasberg and the other most-famous American acting coach Stella Adler were diametrically opposed to such an extent that Adler celebrated Strasberg’s death since it would keep him ruining further generations of actors. And Method actors driving their co-stars crazy is certainly nothing new: Jessica Tandy spent the entirety of Streetcar’s Broadway run wanting to murder Marlon Brando.
While it gets frustrating continually hearing actors and directors try to define the Method in vague, hard-to-define terms, Butler’s book is still a worthy guide to the development of the American theater and acting in general. If his struggle to pin down a nebulous concept is ultimately unsuccessful, the attempt is still a journey worth celebrating.